Saturday, May 10, 2014

Where Are The Good Shepherds?

The Good Shepherd
John 10: 1-15 Acts 2:42-47

It is Good Shepherd Sunday. Each year we read from the 10th chapter of John. Often overlooked is the  crucial assertion of Jesus in verse 15, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold….” The church is always haunted by the notion that perhaps one can be of God and not be of the church, but long before there even was a church, Jesus makes clear that all of God’s children, all of God’s sheep, all of God’s critters, are not all of one flock.

This verse may be the most important one for us to reflect upon and embody and make our own: God has other sheep and will and does provide for them as God does and will provide for us. In fact, until we can really embrace that singular notion, it strikes me as impossible for us to claim what is really at the heart of John’s Gospel – that Jesus comes so that we might have life, and have it abundantly.

Now all of this is not some sort of marketing scheme like the Prayer of Jabez to suggest that if we pray and pray and pray we will get everything we want. Because it turns out that Jesus, and God, and the Holy Spirit all agree that we should in fact learn to live with just what we need. What we want and what we need are two entirely different realms of abundance. Until we get that straight we will read and re-read our first lesson from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles and be eternally baffled.

We read in Acts chapter 2, so soon after Pentecost and the outpouring of God’s Spirit of vitality, that the early believers devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayers. We read that they had all things, not some things, not a lot of things, but ALL things in common. We read that all things would be redistributed to any as had need. They spent much time together and in the Temple. And day by day God added to their numbers.

Why did people flock to this early church community? Just look at them. They shared everything with one another including the most valuable commodity of all, time. “They spent much time together.” Isn’t it amazing!

Two things in this: We say to ourselves, “Things were much simpler back then.” I think not. Consider that if you spent much time with other Christians the good and civilized people of the Roman Empire would hunt you down, lock you up and send you to the lions or gladiators to toy with. Also, anyone who has lived with just five or ten or more people who hold all things in common can tell you that it is no simple matter to sort out people’s needs and share the goods and possessions accordingly. Trust me, I have been there.

Secondly, we need to think of the abundance promised consisting primarily of time shared with others, rather than an abundance of things. As Jesus asserts time and time again, spending all our time on the acquisition, accumulation and consumption of things leaves precious little time for fellowship, relationships and community. The world of acquisition, accumulation and consumption is a lonely life, an isolated life, where one spends a lot of time building and filling barns, and now self-storage lockers, with more and more stuff. There is no time for fellowship, relationships and community in such a scheme.

Those who take the time to enter the sheepfold through Jesus the gate, those who hear him calling them by name, those who desire to follow the good shepherd, come to know two important things:
1)      What God says to you in Jesus is this: you are forgiven. Nothing more. Nothing less. This is the message Jesus spoke and lived. There are other things that he could have said to us, and most of us are familiar with these because some forms of Christianity relay such messages as: Good News! If you are very very good, God will love you. Or, Good News! If you are very very sorry for not having been very very good, God will love you. Or, God Loves You! Now get back in line before God changes God’s mind! None of these are truly good news. Instead God says, “You are forgiven. I love you anyway, no matter what. I love you not because you are particularly good nor because you are particularly repentant nor because I am trying to bribe you or threaten you into changing. I love you because I love you.”
2)      The early Christians were convinced that the Spirit has a particular care for the church, supplying the community with all it needs. She does so, however, in a peculiar way. The gifts you need she gives to someone else. The gifts you are given are meant for someone else. The Christian community can live only by the sharing and giving of these gifts. The Church at its best is a community that lives by this kind of sharing, exercising its generosity not only within its own circle, but toward outsiders as well. None of us has any higher claim on God than the claim to God’s willing forgiveness. We are all outsiders, miraculously included within the community of the gospel by God’s call.
(Points 1 & 2 are both from William Countryman’s,
The Good News of Jesus, [Cowley, Boston: 1993] pp. 3-5, 105)

God sent Jesus to help us to “get” all of this. God sent Jesus to deliver this “News.” God sent Jesus to call into community people who want to live this way. People who want to know God’s love and care for them in this way. To a world that apparently still had not “got it,” God sent a later revelation through an illiterate, uneducated (by our standards) camel driver named Muhammad through the revelation of the Quran.

The Quran envisages Muslim/Human society to look much like that described in Acts 2: every man, woman and child in the community, Muslim or non-Muslim, is to be provided adequate food, clothing, shelter, education and full health and medical care. To this end the early Islamic Empire created the first hospitals, the first world library and research centers, modern mathematics and numbering systems, public water purification and delivery systems, and easily available books while European culture was mired in a dark ages of intramural religious warfare.

As pointed out by Pope Francis this week, no shepherds of any fold have done a good job of following through on the vision for human society revealed in Torah, the New Testament, the Quran, the Confucian Analects, The Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad-gita, or the Sutras of the Buddha – this, of course, spoken from one of the more conspicuous centers of concentrated wealth on Earth. Were we to spend time with sheep of other folds, and were we to truly share our gifts as God provides and the early Christian and Muslim communities practiced, we might one day realize that we are indeed all outsiders miraculously included within the community of God’s people – that we truly are one people, not many. That simple realization might very well be enough to establish the kind of society God envisages for every man, woman and child. Amen.

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